WHEN friends I don't see nearly often enough invited me out to dinner a few weeks ago, of course I said yes, and then rearranged my schedule to work around the date. "Let's go to Vincenti, just for fun," they told me. "It's really good these days." Since I'd heard the same comment more than once recently, and it had been awhile since I'd been to the queen of the Brentwood Italian restaurants (last reviewed nearly seven years ago), I was curious.
I knew there were some changes, but nothing major. One of the original owners had bowed out and longtime chef Nicola Mastronardi, who had started out under chef Gino Angelini when Vincenti opened in 1997, was now a partner with the late Italian restaurateur Mauro Vincenti's widow, Maureen. (Angelini has since opened Angelini Osteria and La Terza.)
When we walked in, the place looked much the same. A birthday party was in session in the private dining room off the bar, with plates circling the table as someone urged somebody else to taste this, taste that. A few dates in tentative conversation at the bar, sipping Prosecco or an Italian bitter digestivo.
At the back of the dining room, the wood-burning rotisserie glowed red and a cook was taking a duck off the spit. And from the wood-burning oven beside it came enticing smells of roasting meat and fish.
Of all the Italians in Brentwood, this has always been a favorite. It's more expensive than some but delivers in terms of decor, service and an authentic Italian dining experience. The crowd is upscale and local, mostly friends having dinner with friends, the occasional business dinner, or industry insiders table-hopping.
The restaurant opened on San Vicente Boulevard shortly after Roman-born restaurateur Mauro Vincenti (Mauro, Rex il Ristorante, Fennel, Alto Palato -- all gone now) passed away. His widow, Maureen, named the ristorante for the indefatigable champion of Italian cuisine. From the beginning, she didn't pour on the Italian schtick, instead going for a sophisticated contemporary look (that hasn't dated, by the way) over the usual folkloric Italian decor. The waiters know their stuff and convey an affection for the chef and his cooking that seems genuine.
That night the menu looked fresh and interesting, and we could have easily ordered everything on it. As an antipasto, octopus and cuttlefish salad immediately caught my eye. And it's a sumptuous combination of thick triangular cuts of cuttlefish, sweet and tender, with artichokes, asparagus and fava beans.
Quail with grapes isn't new to the menu, but I've never had it so perfectly prepared. The bird is slightly charred, still warm, served with guanciale (cured pork jowl) and grapes drizzled with aceto balsamico. A special prosciutto from Parma is outstanding; sweet and soft as silk, it practically melts in the mouth, a delicious foil for creamy burrata (a cheese made with mozzarella and cream) and roasted tomatoes garnished with a fragrant basil oil.
Even if we're going straight to the pasta dishes, and bypassing the antipasti altogether, I always have to order the fried zucchini and calamari, which has been on the menu practically since Day 1. It may be a no-brainer, but the zucchini, cut into matchsticks, are as perfectly fried as something a tempura master could produce.
The baby calamari are crispy, and both are set off by the handmade tartar sauce. And one night there's a fabulous salad of soft shell crab fried whole and juicy as anything, in a lemon and caper dressing atop soft baby greens.
Chef makes his mark
Mastronardi is definitely on a roll. Maybe being a partner is what has made all the difference. He has a newfound confidence and his cooking is less prone to ups and downs. The execution is dead-on and when he wants to impress, he no longer runs straight to the fancy hotel repertoire, but comes up with something wonderfully rustic, or light, or ingeniously delicious. No question but that this is his kitchen and his cooking.
He's got some wonderful pasta dishes on the menu. I love the lasagnette, fresh sheets of pasta layered with a delicate ragu of chicken, veal and rabbit, cherry tomatoes, green beans and ricotta salata (salted cheese) shaped in the form of a small cake. And I'm crazy about the ravioli with fonduta of molten pecorino cheese in a fresh fava bean sauce embellished with finely sliced, crispy guanciale, delicious and very sweet and porky.
The tasting menu usually has an intriguing pasta too (anything can be ordered a la carte). One night it was pappardelle with porcini mushrooms and black summer truffles. Another time, I couldn't resist the tagliolini alla chitarra (pasta cut on a wood box strung with wire) with lobster, baby artichokes and octopus, a beautiful combination of flavors. Bucatini all' Amatriciana, the classic dish from the town outside Rome, made with tomato sauce and house-cured guanciale, was a particular favorite of Mauro Vincenti and remains on the menu as a tribute. And it's one of the best versions around. The one thing I would say about the pastas is that they tend to be over-sauced in the American style.
You can find tagliata of beef or chicken cacciatore anywhere (though rarely as well prepared). What interests me is anything from the wood-burning rotisserie. And most of the time that would be duck, which is offered as a special or as part of the tasting menu, served with ribbons of braised red cabbage. This isn't a meager duck breast, but half a Sonoma duckling, roasted to a deep mahogany, the flesh still moist but decidedly not pink. Cooking it this way brings out the full flavor of the bird.
I liked the special of rabbit rolled up with prosciutto and herbs and cut in rounds too. Main courses are mainly plain, served with roasted potatoes and some green beans or a tomato gratin. Rack of lamb is tender and delicious, and the tagliata of New York steak has a wonderful, smoky edge from the wood-burning oven.
If you order Dover sole here, it's firm and fresh, simply cooked in the wood-burning oven and served, if you like, with a tarragon mayonnaise, vegetables and potato puree. It's very expensive, but the real thing.
So is the branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass. In some local kitchens, it can have the texture of wet Kleenex. Not here, where the flavor and texture trump almost every other branzino I've had in town.
Savoring the slice
At Vincenti, Monday night is pizza night and after my first visit, I'm definitely going back. The regular menu is also available that night, but the thin-crusted pizzas coming from the wood-burning oven are the real draw, a chance to enjoy Vincenti at more moderate prices.
The wood oven gives the crust a blistered, smoky edge, but avoids the cracker effect of so many thin crusts. Upgrade the classic and always delicious Margherita to the version made with bufala mozzarella: It's stupendously good, made with a light tomato sauce and cherry tomatoes with ribbons of basil.
The special pizza one night is sausage with caciocavallo cheese and fresh porcini mushrooms. By the time I got there late, after a meeting, the kitchen had run out of porcini and was substituting fresh shiitake. But I got the same shower of summer truffles on top as my friends who'd had the special pizza while they waited for me.
Desserts have always been a weak point at Vincenti (and it has to be said, at most other Italian restaurants). Not anymore. A young pastry chef, Willy Sifuentes, is turning out sweets that defy convention.
Tiramisu? Try it. His version, served in a martini glass, is dense and creamy, tasting more of mascarpone than whipped cream, and not too sweet. An individual warm ricotta cake is light and just barely scented with lemon. The miniature cookies that come after everything are lovely too, dry and properly crumbly.
What a happy surprise to find that Vincenti has a new focus and energy that's making this Italian ristorante more alluring than ever. The Italians know a thing or two about keeping the classic fresh. And in Los Angeles, Vincenti has now moved into the realm of the classic.
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Location: 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 207-0127; www.vincenti ristorante.com.
Ambience: Chic contemporary Italian with a small bar up front and a wood-burning oven and rotisserie at the back. An upscale neighborhood hangout, it also attracts Italophiles from all over the city for chef/co-owner Nicola Mastronardi's cooking.
Service: Alert and friendly.
Price: Antipasti, $14 to $18; pastas, risottos and soups, $12 to $20; main courses, $10 to $39; chef's six-course tasting menu, $70 per person; desserts, $12.50. Pizzas (Monday only), $15 to $25.
Best dishes: Crispy calamari and zucchini; warm salad of octopus and cuttlefish with artichokes; roasted quail with guanciale and grapes; ravioli with fresh fava beans and guanciale; lasagnette with veal, chicken and rabbit ragu; tagliolini with lobster and artichokes; branzino; rotisserie Sonoma duck; warm ricotta cake; tiramisu.
Wine list: Strong on Italian wines from diverse regions. Corkage fee, $20.
Best table: One of the corner booths.
Details: Open 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Friday lunch 12 to 2 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $6.
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Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.